Friday, April 16, 2010

"Paraprofessional" - A Dirty Word?

Ursala Delworth in an article entitled, "The paraprofessionals are coming!" from 1974 discusses the muddying waters of terminology in the use of professionals and a newly coined term "paraprofessionals". She describes paraprofessionals as:

persons who are selected, trained, and given responsibility for performing functions generally performed by professionals. They do not require the requisite education or credentials to be considered professionals in the field in which they are working, but they do perform tasks central to the function of the agency...*

In March of this year, Francine Fialkoff, editor in-chief for Library Journal discussed the issues around the paraprofessional label of non-MLIS library staff. She illustrates that the English definition of this term, as someone who is subsiduary or ancillary to roles posessessing more training or higher status, does not satisfy the description of what library staff do. Indeed, as Fialkoff points out, non-MLIS staff perform an array of tasks that need to be recognized and respected.+

Fear that giving library techncian and assistants a stronger title like "paralibrarian" further deprofessionalizes the field is, quite simply, misplaced. The incredible changes that libraries are experiencing as information becomes increasingly central to our culture and society, means that library staff are ALL seeing an increasing complexity to their work. Certainly, very few who use the services of libraries and other information centres make a distinction between a circulation assistant and a reference librarian. As a result, ALL library staff must behave in a manner that is in keeping with the professional and ethical philosophy of the profession. In order to build strong organizational cultures, library administrators need to focus on creating work environments that provide seamless service and opportunities for all staff to continually develop and grow.

Although libraries have existed for thousands of years in many forms, the modern field of librarianship does not have a long history. It is natural, then, to see the traditional views and roles of library work shift with the changing expectations that occur in and around the field. Our philosophy remains grounded in providing access to information for the purposes of knowledge building and this should provide us with the reassurance that changing the definitions relating to our roles and positions will, in all likelihood, enhance the profession. Enabling all library staff to see themselves as professionals by changing job titles and enhancing career development, strengthens the profession. Granted, the issue of salary then becomes part of the discussion. It is important to see that the limited resources that challenge our progress should not be the cause to fight internally, like hungry wolves, over limited budget allocations. Our energy needs to be turned outward to educate our communities about the services libraries provide and demonstrate that those services are performed by professionals who adhere to a set of core values and principles.

Allison Sloan, Library Journal's Paraprofessional of the Year, makes a poignant statement when she says:

Of course there is an important place in libraries for people who do not have an advanced degree but who want to pursue a library career...In Massachusetts we know that, and we call them 'paralibrarians.'**

Although used for over 40 years, the term "paraprofessional" no longer serves our field. It is time to embrace the diversity of our working environments by respecting both those with advanced degrees and those without. More importantly, it is important for library education programs to foster professionalism and life-long learning so that all library staff are prepared to carry out the complexities of their work with confidence. We are all professionals.

*Delworth, U. (1974). The paraprofessionals are coming!. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 53(4), 250. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

+ Fialkoff, F. (2010, March). Not Yet Equal. Library Journal, p. 8. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

**Berry III, J. (2010). ALLISON SLOAN. Library Journal, 135(4), 26-27. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.


Stephen K said...

As someone who is passionate about library advocacy, I think that what you have said before on that topic is spot on. We need unity among library staff now more than ever as libraries are under attack from the powers that be. What are referred to as library support staff make up about two-thirds of the library work force. We are intelligent, capable, and can be a tremendous resource in the struggle to protect libraries. It makes no sense to me , and seems self-defeating to me, that we aren't given more respect within the library community.

Demara said...

Amen Sister! And I totally agree with Stephen K.

To be given the chance to pursue a career in the library field without the required credentials and still be given an interview because there is a lack of 'internal interest' is a form of respect that I think should occur more often.

It's difficult to get into the 'club'...but at least there's that 'chance' that it could happen, eventually. Is that 'chance' enough, "externally" though?

jay said...

I agree with what you say, but as a person who likes to get down to the practical application of these things (and ask questions ALL THE TIME) I have a couple of questions. There are techies / assistants / whatever term who are happy to sit where they are and they don't want the extra responsibility. I'm not talking about people who are not capable, I'm thinking of excellent staff who are content where they are. Presumably this would be a voluntary process. Actually, I know staff who are not as capable and are better placed with less responsibility. This has to be handled in such a way that they don't feel left behind / left out / less than.

Also, over here in Oz there have been various schemes brought in in some libraries to get staff up to techie level via shortcuts, the concern in some places being that not enough people are coming into libraries at our level, if they have a lot of experience, but there's only a few places that do the techy to librarian thing and I think they do it by not using the traditional library position names and opening up the criteria.

Of course, the money aspect has been mentioned and I think it's going to be the hardest hurdle to cross - those with their fingers on the purse will always cry poor, and frankly, our society doesn't value libraries and library staff enough to fund properly. No one will want to bring in a scheme that increases the wages quota. So maybe marketing is an integral part of the game??

Christina Neigel said...

Yes, marketing or "promotion" is part of the game but I think it also critical for us to stop apologizing for what we do and what we cost and start relaying the importance of what we DO. For example, if informaiton is a valuable commodity in today's world and we know how to manage it, find it, evaluate it and pass it along to others, we have incredible value. We help build knowledge. Something that is valued. However, we do a poor job of explaining/expressing this to others because we like to use cryptic terminology that only has relevance to us (somehow we have thought that this makes us seem more important?). Anyway, we need to step forward and push for our importance. If there are some who do not want to join us (i.e. stay in their comfortable jobs and hope their should doesn't get tapped, then their longevity in the field is going to be compromised!